ARAB CINEMA SHINES BRIGHT

Viewing MENA Films at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival (LFF)

Guest Post: Dr Khalid Ali

Once again London succeeded in hosting a vibrant celebration of world cinema. From around the globe, filmmakers from 75 countries presented their works at this year’s BFI London Film Festival that took place 2-13 October. Bringing new voices beside auteur talent, the festival engaged as always with pressing universal themes. Tricia Tuttle, Director of the Festival commented: ‘’Like all good art, cinema helps us make sense of the world we live in’’.

The diversity of Arab cinema this year was utterly remarkable with seven films showing in the Debate, Laugh, Dare and Create sections of the festival, in addition to two Saudi films in competition. Most of the films came lauded with praise and accolades from previous film festivals; and, it was a great opportunity for Londoners to treat themselves to one, two or more films from the best of what is coming out of the MENA region.

It was heart-warming to see that from the nine films that two were Saudi productions made by women directors at the top of their game. The first was Haifa Al Mansour’s ‘The Perfect Candidate’ in the official competition, and Shahad Ameen’s debut film ‘Scales’ in the first feature competition. Both films featured strong female protagonists fighting entrenched prejudices in their society.

The Perfect Candidate (Haifaa Al Mansour)

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Maryam in the former is the strong-willed doctor practising in a local hospital who faces blatant gender-discrimination from an older male patient who prefers to see a male doctor. Stopped at the airport from travelling when her permit expired, starts a series of unusual events that lead to Maryam putting her name down as a candidate for the local council elections.

One fact however that Maryam tries to hide is that her deceased mother was a wedding singer; and, here, lovers of classic Egyptian cinema will spot a connection between Dr Maryam and Zuzu, the bright University student fighting off stigma and discrimination because of her mother’s profession as an entertainer in 1970s Cairo in Hassan Al Imam’s ‘Take Care of Zuzu’.

In ‘Scales’ Hayat is a 12-year old girl born in a mystical fishing village where families have to sacrifice one girl to the sea to appease the ‘sea monsters’. Shot in luminous monochrome as a magical fable, Ameen challenges established beliefs and practises treating women as second-class citizens. Winning the ‘Verona Award’ for films with innovative vision, Ameen is an emerging talent to look out for.

Scales (Shahad Ameen)

Tunisia led with no less than three films. Hinde Boujemaa’s debut feature ‘Noura’s Dream’ stars Hend Sabri as a mother standing up to her husband’s oppression. Noura is neither presented as a victim nor as an angel; she is a human being struggling with raising three children as a single mother, and a woman with a desire for love and kindness. Sabri won the best actress award for her performance at El Gouna Film Festival.

Addressing women’s status in Tunisian law and social standing, Boujemaa skilfully analyses through Noura’s dilemma the choice between life as an obedient wife or as an independent but tarnished woman. She touches upon double standards, the moral decline of those in public office and prevalent corruption with a clear vision. Bearing in mind that Tunisian law treats women and men equally when it comes to sentencing in crimes of passion.

Noura’s Dream (Hinde Boujemaa)

‘Tlamess’ by Ala Eddine Slim offers an enigmatic story that is described by the director as a tale of “a man and a woman living in symbiosis with nature”. ‘S’ is a soldier running away from the army when he meets a mysterious woman called ‘F’ in a woodland. They come to bond through unspoken language and fight off forces of nature including a baby dinosaur. Perplexing as it seems, this film is a visually rewarding extravaganza pulsating to the beat of a haunting musical score from Oiseaux Tempete.

The third Tunisian offering was ‘A Son’ by Mehdi M Barsaoui that won its lead actor Sami Bouajila the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. It follows a family’s worst nightmare after their son is shot and left seriously ill in hospital in desperate need for an urgent liver transplant. Finding a liver donor with a matching blood group becomes a fateful event as it unravels long hidden secrets about the son’s identity.

A Son (Mehdi M Barsaoui)

The victory of the recent Sudanese revolution and overturning of the military regime is echoed in Suhaib Gasemelbari’s documentary film ‘Talking About Trees’ which won the Berlin Film Festival Best Documentary and Audience Awards. Gasemelbari follows four veteran Sudanese filmmakers (Manar Al Hiloo, Ibrahim Shaddad, El Tayeb Mahdi, and Suleiman El Nour) in their attempts to reopen a cinema and restore film-viewing culture in a hostile political environment. All four are cinephiles bound by long-term friendship and hope that one day Sudan will pack cinemas as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s.

Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari)

‘The Cave’ by Feras Fayyad was Syria’s entry this year. It is a follow up to his 2017 award winning film ‘Last Men In Aleppo’. Set in a secret hospital in Ghouta, the film champions defiant doctors led by Dr Amani and hospital staff in saving the lives of wounded civilians while surviving the most dangerous of chemical attacks and bombings. Set in a claustrophobic underground setting, the film compels the viewer to denounce the humanitarian crisis facing the country.

Elia Suleiman returns to his favourite subject of exploring Palestinian refugees’ plight in his latest film ‘It Must Be Heaven’. In this follow up to ‘The Time That Remains’ (2009), Suleiman sets the scene in Paris and New York analysing themes of displacement and alienation.

Last but not least, ‘The Unknown Saint’ by Alaa Eddine Aljem represented Moroccan cinema; a black comedy where a criminal is trying to recover a hidden loot now buried under a holy temple. The village people seek ‘cure, happiness and wish-fulfilment’ by offering money and prayers to the holy saint. While the village doctor – who is infuriated by the people’s ignorance and simplistic belief in the power of an unknown’ person – soon despairs and becomes one of the believers.

The Unknown Saint (Alaa Eddine Aljem)

Watching the diversity of Arab cinema at the LFF, I was reassured that Arab voices and stories are no longer marginalised or forgotten. From women fighting against oppression, to film veterans trying to revive a nation’s love for film, to ordinary people affected by violent extremist practices, Arabs are well and truly represented when it comes to the big silver screen in 2019.

Dr Khalid Ali is a Senior Lecturer in Geriatrics and Stroke Medicine at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, a Film and Media correspondent for Medical Humanities Journal, author of ‘The Cinema Clinic: Reflections on Film and Medicine’ and Co-Founder of Egypt Medfest, an artistic, cultural, humanitarian and medically themed educational film forum.

The Aga Khan Centre Launches A New Gallery With ‘At The Corner of A Dream’ Exhibition, Showing the Works of Lebanese-Egyptian Artist Bahia Shehab

Guest Post: Annie Carpenter

A haven for education, knowledge, cultural exchange and insight into Muslim civilisations, The Aga Khan Centre is ideally located in London’s Kings Cross area. Opened in September 2018, it is comprised of three organisations that work together to bridge the gap in the understanding of Muslim cultures and connecting the public to global development issues. These three organisations are: The Aga Khan Foundation, The Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC), and The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Housed in an impressive building that was specifically designed by renowned Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, it incorporates a collection of beautiful gardens, courtyards and terraces that provide an insight into the diversity and influence of Islamic landscape design. The entire structure represents openness, dialogue and respect for differing viewpoints; and, offers a tranquil environment for scholars, students and staff alike to share ideas and work together.

Proudly adding to its functions and overall reach, the Aga Khan Centre has just launched a new space within the building – on the ground floor – to serve as an art gallery. Hosting a changing programme of exhibitions, it hopes to create an even better understanding of Islam and Muslim cultures, past and present, from an artistic viewpoint.

Its inaugural show, titled ‘At the Corner of a Dream’, offers the first UK solo presentation of the Lebanese-Egyptian artist Bahia Shehab, whose work first came into global view when she used street art as an act of protest during the Arab Spring of 2011.

Comprised of five digital artworks produced by Shehab in 2019 and commissioned by AKU-ISMC, they relate to the poetry murals she originally painted in four different cities (Cairo, New York, Beirut and Marrakesh) as well as on the Greek island of Cephalonia. Inspired by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) – the show’s title is a line from one of his poems – she uses lines from his Arabic verse to tell the world that ideas cannot be killed and to show that humankind is united in its struggle against oppression and dictatorship.

Those Who Have No Land Have No Sea, 2019

In the films, therefore, each location corresponds to sites where Shehab created a mural. Viewing her walls as meeting points and conversation starters, she also raises the curiosity of passers-by, prompting them to ask about the stories behind the writing and encouraging them to stop and ask how they can tackle injustice in their own country, or how they can work for equality and help others live in a better world.

In one titled ‘We Love Life’, for example, Shehab reflects on Darwish’s stanza that reads “We love life if we had access to it”. It depicts a wedding in four different settings. In the first, the couple are seen in a tuk-tuk (a transportation bike used in informal housing areas in Cairo); in the second, they are seated in their wedding chairs on the street in front of a local butcher shop; in the third they are seen in a destroyed house and, finally, they sit on thrones with the city of the dead in the background. The film plays on the idea of hope and the ability to dream visualising something as joyous as a wedding to reflect a very morbid reality where even hope becomes impossible.

We Love Life, 2019 HD video still, 2019

The films are presented in an immersive environment across four screens creating a 360° display in which each image is seamlessly adjoined. Alongside, the show includes a site-specific calligraffiti stencil wall work and two vitrines containing paraphernalia relating to her artistic practice.

Commenting on the show, Curator Esen Kaya said: ‘We are honoured to be launching our new Gallery with an exhibition by Bahia Shehab. Shehab’s striking and stylized work provides an opportunity for us to think about some of the issues happening across the world today. The work is both poetic and stimulating as she encourages us to think about the lives of others, whilst considering our own.”

Commissioned by the AKU-ISMC, the exhibition marks the publication of a book of the same name on Shehab’s poetry-based work, published by Gingko Press. It also follows the unveiling of a major 30-metre mural called ‘We Will Not Repent’, created for Lincoln University in August 2019.

The exhibition is on view at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery from the 27 September – 5 January 2020.

Further information: https://www.agakhancentre.org.uk/gallery/

You can purchase Bahia’s new publication, ‘At the Corner of a Dream. A Journey of Resistance & Revolution: The Street Art of Bahia Shehab’ here: https://www.gingko.org.uk/title/at-the-corner-of-a-dream/

Note: Guest writer Annie Carpenter is a London-based freelance writer with a particular focus on art and photography. She writes for The London Magazine, Widewalls and Medium, among others.

Bring Arabic Back Home: Support Campaign Inspired By Calligraphy

Guest Post: Soulaf Khalifeh

I have been looking into art and design as an expression of cultural identity since I was a design student, learning about art history and artists whose vision shaped the world we live in today. When I looked closely at the Arab world’s artistic contribution, I found one uniquely dominant element: calligraphy.

This finding sparked my interest in letters, in their forms and proportions as well as their connection to who we are. When I found calligraphy, I found an amazing tool of self expression and I never let go of it since; and, never could I have imagined that this art form would lead me to London, my second home, where I have been working as a type designer since 2013.

Boutros Aura: Arabic font designed by Soulaf Khalifeh between 2014 and 2017

Calligraphy then became more than an art form; it became a way for me to connect to my language, to my home, especially after I moved abroad.

Like many Arabs, I left the comfort of my hometown and family seeking the fulfilment of my passion and ambitions abroad; and, like many Arabs, I started asking myself ‘Who am I? Where do I belong? What does it mean to be Arab when I’m living in a non-Arab country?’

The Arab diaspora is a big community and instead of rejecting immigration, exile or displacement, we should embrace and celebrate the fact that we don’t need geographic borders to tell us who we are. Art tells me who I am, and it’s that cultural identity, which I am fortunate to be able to express through the medium of calligraphy, that makes me proud to say I’m Arab.

It is Arabic, as a language and as an art form that binds us together, no matter where we came from or where we immigrated. If we lose it, we lose a big part of who we are.

I know I want to hold on to Arabic, and if you share my sentiment, please join me on my journey to ‘Bring Arabic Back Home’ and support my campaign by supporting not only the beautiful art of Arabic calligraphy; but, also, my vision to create a platform that fulfils the ambitions of the thirsty and talented Arabic creative community and that serves the communication needs of the Arabic-speaking world so that we wouldn’t have to go abroad to look for Arabic.

Different calligraphy giveaways are available through the campaign, like the campaign t-shirt that designed so that you can wear your language and bring Arabic back home. You can also order your own custom calligraphy artwork.

   

The Bring Arabic Back Home campaign is running until 18 September on Indiegogo: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/bring-arabic-back-home#/

To learn more about my calligraphy and type design work, visit my website: http://www.soulafkhalifeh.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/soulafkh?lang=en   Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/soulafkh/

Dema One: Getting To Know The Belgian-Moroccan Street Artist & His Exploring ‘REM’

His real name is Ahmed Ahamdi but he prefers to be called Dema One, just like the signature on his artwork, be it the graffiti on a wall, a painting in a gallery or an installation piece. Recently in London, I met up with the 48 years old Belgian-Moroccan street artist where his UK solo exhibition titled ‘REM’ was on display at the P21 Gallery.

Tireless and passionate he has dedicated most of his life to the ethos of a hip hop collective known as ‘CNN 199’, a crew in existence for over 30 years that originated in and around the city of Brussels. Wherever Dema travels and whichever urban projects he undertakes, he does so in his capacity as a founding member of CNN with its strong message of empowering disadvantaged youth and vulnerable others.

One directive of the counter sub-culture is for anyone disaffected by a society, a system or other oppressive force, to go beyond the limitations imposed upon them by thinking and acting outside the box and finding ways of assertive expression without losing one’s way to negative influences. In tandem with deep inner reflection, one can tap into and harness inner strength and transform toxic environments and energies into something constructive and powerful.

Dema knows what it is like to grow up in a deprived and poor neighbourhood, where the lure of drugs, gangs and violence is everywhere; and, when, the political and economic systems have failed you. The challenge becomes how you find a way out to avoid further disadvantage, criminality, trouble with the police or dying young from an overdose or an attack, as happened to some of his contemporaries.

He relayed to me a significant period during his teenage years when Roger Nols, the Mayor of his town of Schaerbeekin in Brussels, had instigated a vendetta and public harassment campaign against the local North African community, suggesting that they leave Belgium and go back to where their parents came from. He used billboards to insult them with images of camels.

Dema: “That was my first struggle to fight against this ultra-right Mayor and the police who sided with him because we were the sons of immigrants. We tagged all the buildings in the city with our graffiti to make a statement that he is no one to us and to tell him and the police to ‘f**k off! It didn’t’ seem fair that the Moroccans were being targeted and told that we’re not wanted.”

“It began like this until I realised that I could do more than just tagging or vandalising… I could use Arabic calligraphy. So for the first time in 1991, I wrote in Arabic the word meaning ‘brothers’ in a little local square; and, when all the white people came and asked me why are you writing in Arabic, I said because it is my roots and I want to show with this calligraffiti that we can live and grow up together and make something together. I painted everywhere in town in Brussels.”

With time Dema’s work has evolved with his brush strokes and spray paint becoming bolder, more confidant and vibrant, as well as drawing upon Arabic poetry and the art of storytelling. With it too he has developed a philosophic and practical approach to belonging to two different cultures and sensibilities, exploring multiple identities and how to resolve one’s sense of inner and outer exile.

Dema: “My work is a mix of East and West culture, about tradition and modernity, graffiti and calligraphy. I try to mix Latin and Arabic letters to have my way; not just a way, but my way and to fulfil my goal. I want to transmit and educate people to communicate with each other and not be afraid to confront and exchange ideas and philosophies. It is to have a better life and a better society.”

For the past seven years, in particular, Dema has been involved with youth organisations and charities in Belgium as well as worldwide commissioned urban assignments and artistic interventions. He is highly sought after for the way he conducts his workshops and engages with marginalised children and communities, schools and inmates too. He has led projects in the United States (Washington DC), Europe (Belgium, UK), South America (Rio De Janeiro, Brazil) Africa (Morocco, Benin), and Asia (United Arab Emirates). His next trip will be to Dakar, Senegal.

One notable experience for him was working with the youngsters of the Molenbeek Saint-Jean district in Brussels, which had become a notorious town due to the fact that the perpetrators and planners of several terrorist attacks in France and Belgium had come from there; including, those behind the November 2015 Paris attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, the March 2016 Brussels Airport attack and connections to Charles Hebdo attack.

Dema: “When there was an incredible amount of negative media coverage of the Muslim community within Molenbeek, I was contacted by the Youth Service who offered me a studio in exchange for working with the youngsters in areas that were predominantly North African.

“I tried to show these boys and girls that through graffiti and art they can have a new vision of life and emancipate themselves. I tried to open their minds to say there are many ways to achieve your goals, despite what schools might teach them. I open the space and say to them ‘Don’t worry if you fall once or twice, no matter what, you can get up again and succeed.”

Thus engaging with communities at the root level, Dema’s desire is to change the way people think and therefore how they might behave. He gives useful tools and offers plain honest motivation. He said to me: “If I can save one child, I will be happy.”

Exploring ‘REM’ (Resilience, Exile, Mutation) at the P21 Gallery

Turning to the exhibition at the P21 Gallery, it brought Dema’s take on the ‘REM’ concepts of resilience, exile and mutation, with reference to both his personal cross-cultural journey as well as that of the countless others who have had to traverse the earth alone and face the unknown. Curated by Zalia Zogheib, the works included his calligraffiti on the walls, with paintings and installations.

Set up so that viewers follow the psychological stages of embarking on a major journey, the display touched upon the mental and physical aspects of travelling and the risks involved. In the front room, for example, was the installation referring to a famous poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish on the state of feeling and thinking that you don’t belong.

Cut out from a blue translucent plastic material with the words in Arabic, the quote says: “I am from there, I am from here but I am neither there nor here. I have two names which meet and part, I have two languages, I forget which of them I dream in.” This is the beginning of the existential angst that will determine whether or not you decide to leave.

Moving on to the next wall, one encountered three sets of triptychs and two paintings to reflect mainly on the idea of resilience when one is in the midst of danger; and, also, when there is a need to overcome anger or rage at injustice or unfairness. Here the issue becomes how do you go forwards without turning into further victimisation and violence; and, also, how do you address the symptoms of a lived trauma. Among these triptychs was a tribute to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire with a dedicated poem by the Nigerian writer Ben Okri.

Offering some more insight into this wall, Zogheib, who was with us on the day of the interview, said: “These triptychs represent the mental preparation that you might go through before you start your journey. These are all the fears and why we refer to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Also, we have the idea of one’s hopes and dreams prior to departure and one’s expectations of what will happen at the end.”

Walking further along was another installation called ‘Borders’, formed by a collection of nineteen Arabic words that have been cut out of translucent pink plastic and which hang from the ceiling. Some of the words were: Escape, Survive, Die, Cross, Love, Violence, Border, Illusion, Constraints and Identity.

Dema: “This is when you set foot somewhere new and must undergo a process of transitioning. This is the most intense phase because it also means you have overcome the many hurdles to reach your destination. All the words try to convey the ‘in-between’ phase”.

In the lower space of the gallery there was another installation titled ‘REM’. This was an unusual four-sided structure made of translucent white felt material, where one finds a play of lights, shadows and reflections on the inside; and, where, also, one sees the word ‘Human’ written in four languages (Arabic, English, French and Amazigh) and then on the ground, the words ‘Resilience, Exile, Mutation.’

Dema: “When you cross the mountain, the sea or the borders, you achieve your way when you find yourself; and, that is reflected in the eyes of others and how they see you as a human, and not like an immigrant, escapee or survivor. You may be a survivor, escapee or immigrant, but the people see you with your name. It is about tolerance, resilience and sharing”.

Zogheib: “Throughout the journey and the inherent pain, the loss and loneliness, you get to a point when you realise that at the end of the journey, well I am resilient, I am adaptable, I mutate. It is a reference to how when you leave your country, even if you come back, you have changed. Whatever you do, you change. And that is all inherently human. We are human. We adapt. We are resilient.”

There were other items in the exhibition, including a video covering Dema’s trip to Benin in West Africa, and an installation titled ‘The Wisdom of Knowing Where I Come From’. This latter, in fact, offered the best image to leave with in one’s mind, as it incorporated photos of Dema’s Moroccan family (originally from Targuist and emigrated to Europe circa the 1950s and 1960s) on the one hand, and photos of his young Belgian CNN crew on the other, at the start of his journey 30 years ago. It perfectly sums up the wisdom he has acquired over that time and why he is now on a mission to impart his knowledge and skills to others.

Note: The ‘REM’ exhibition was sponsored by La Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles in Brussels, the Watan Foundation in London and other private sponsors. It took place at the P21 Gallery 2-24 August, 2019.

Note: Dema One has been to London before and held workshops and mural paintings for children and adults in collaboration with Global Street Art, the Migration Museum, the Faith & Belief Forum and King’s College London.

For more information about the P21 Gallery: http://p21.gallery/

For more information about Dema One: https://demaone.org/

Curfew: Taking A Dance Step Into Resistance

Set in a world in which we have become a bit like zombies, not knowing how to respond to the news we hear or read about everyday. Bombarded with fake and true information, many are no longer sure of how to act in the face of others’ suffering or indeed towards the awareness that we all now live under subtle surveillance and manipulation. Instead we choose to be deaf and blind by turning to other stories that can assuage our conscience and help us deny responsibility.

It is this indifference on the global scale that ‘Curfew’ confronts the audience with. An original dance performance, it draws upon a mix of contemporary-modern moves and the traditional Palestinian Dabke. Creatively directed by Sharaf Darzaid, who is a member of the El-Funoun Palestinian Dance Troupe, it refers one to the local struggle against oppression and how dance has become a form of resistance and an empowering means of self-expression.

Nine dancers in total, who all contributed with their personal stories and ideas to the final routine, four of them came all the way from Ramallah in the West Bank to represent El-Funoun: Mohammed Altayeh, Khaled Abueram, Sharaf Darzaid and Lure Sadeq. The other five dancers, belonging to the London-based Hawiyya Dance Company, were: Jamila Boughelaf, Sylvia Ferreira, Sali Kharobi, Miriam Ozanne and Serena Spadoni.

Structured by scenes that are set in Palestine and in the universal realm, we see how brief moments of happiness and normality are interrupted or sabotaged by the loud voiceover of political news that leaves the dancers deflated, at a loss and feeling helpless. In other acts the performers also appear to be at the mercy of work production lines and hypnotised by the sound of a ringing alarm clock which forces them back into a state of submission, meekness and withdrawal.

    

Significant props include mobile phones that indicate both the lack of real human interaction in today’s busy world – as they distract, separate and isolate – and the fact that these little devices are an important tool to finding non-biased truth through social media channels. Whilst black masks come to convey that there are yet dark forces lurking in the shadows of our existence, keeping a computer-generated eye on our moves as well as secretly profiling each and every single one of us.

Amidst the confusion, the evident psychological abuse of minds and exerted physical control over bodies, the routine dramatically develops into the final scenes when the dancers consciously wake up to their predicament. It all then ends in spectacular fashion that engages directly with the audience by giving two dares that can be accepted or rejected at will.

Insight: Creative Director Sharaf Darzaid & Executive Producer Jamila Boughelaf

Curfew came about when three members of Hawiyya were on a visit to Palestine last year and experienced first hand the demoralising ways of the occupying force – like, for example, the unnecessary interrogations at border check points. So when they met Darzaid there, who was coordinating the annual Palestine International Festival for Dance and Music, they decided on a collaborative project to bring the story back to a London audience.

Boughelaf, executive producer for Curfew, explained: “When I came back from Palestine I found many people who wanted to hear my stories. But I also found many others who refused to acknowledge the facts and others asking me why I cared so much as there is injustice everywhere and you can’t do anything to change it. My response is why don’t you care?

“This is really what drove me to make this project happen and after discussing with Sharaf, as well as all the dancers from Hawiyya, we realised we were all asking ourselves the same question: are we doing enough? We may not be able to change the world’s politics, but if we manage to change even one person’s understanding of reality I feel that we have done something!”

Wanting to learn more from Darzaid, who has been an active member of El-Funoun for over seventeen years as a dancer, trainer and choreographer, I asked him firstly to expand on the choice of title ‘Curfew’ and tell me about the role of Dabke in the production.

Darzaid: “It is called Curfew for two reasons. Physically especially in Palestine, we have a certain time of curfew, when no one can move out from the houses in the West Bank. Even if we secretly want to go to the dance studio, we have to close the door after we enter, put down the blinds and keep the lights down, so that they can’t see that we are in and the music volume is low.

“We spent months under curfew and couldn’t move… the Israelis would give us a couple of hours a week to go out and bring food and go back home; and, even before or after this curfew, we are still not freely able to move from one city to another, because of the checkpoints between the cities.

“For example, I can’t go to my capital Jerusalem, I need permission to go there. Or Gaza. If I want to travel to places like here in the UK, I need to bring a lot of papers in order to prove that I am a ‘good human’, and therefore travelling between the cities and between countries, this is the physical meaning of curfew.

“Sometimes you want to take a position to resist the oppression but many times, you can’t even do this because you are forbidden. So even in your thoughts you are not free and there is a curfew. To quote Desmond Tutu, ‘if you are neutral in a situation of oppression, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor’; and, Paulo Freire said: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral…’.

“We are coming from a place where we are under occupation and this is one of the stories about what we do. We don’t’ give answers, we give a question. What do you do? Do you take action or do you maintain? Even being silent is a political position. Saying no I don’t’ care what happens, I just want to wake up and work and have money and by the end of the day I have my drink and eat and sleep, you can take this position. I say nothing. I say in this case you are maintaining.”

“(In terms of the dance) I am inspired by folklore and trying to speak in this choreography by using Dabke as an identity and not as a movement. We are doing a contemporary production and one of the pieces is about the Palestinian wedding where there is really Dabke. But the rest draws upon the energy, power and the meaning of Dabke as resistance. You can feel it throughout the production.”

I left in awe of the dancers’ energy, fluidity and expert movements led by the highly skilled choreography. I also went away with great respect for Dabke not just as a dance; but, also, as a source of cultural endurance that is being passed down Palestinian generations and being widely shared by others who wish to stand in solidarity. The big question is who will be joining in and taking their first dance step into resistance for a free Palestine.

For more on Hawiyya: https://www.facebook.com/HawiyyaDabke/

For more on El Funoun: http://www.el-funoun.org/

Photos credit: Jose Farinha: https://www.josefarinha.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Retracing A Disappearing Landscape: Exhibition Overview + Parallel Programme

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Retracing A Disappearing Landscape’ is an interdisciplinary exhibition that is currently on show at the P21 Gallery in London until 12 May. Presenting visual artworks, commissioned installations, films and recent as well as archival photography, it creatively explores people’s direct experience of and fascination with memory and personal history, and approaching the collective narratives that arise in connection to modern day Libya.

The first of its kind internationally, it is also hosting a parallel programme of talks that adds more depth and insight into the themes that come up in the viewing of the artworks and interaction with the installations. Involving over 25 contemporary artists and professionals, both Libyan and non-Libyan, their backgrounds draw upon diverse disciplines that include: poetry, literature, history, research, photojournalism and documentary filmmaking.

Participating artists and professionals are: Najat Abeed, Mohamed Abumeis, Huda Abuzeid, Mohamed Al Kharrubi, Takwa Barnosa, Mohamed Ben Khalifa, Najwa Benshatwan, Alla Budabbus, Malak Elghwel, Elham Ferjani, Yousef Fetis, Hadia Gana, Ghazi Gheblawi, Reem Gibriel, Jihan Kikhia, Marcella Mameli-Badi, Guy Martin, Arwa Massaoudi, Khaled Mattawa, Tawfik Naas, Laila Sharif, Najla Shawket Fitouri, Barbara Spadaro and Adam Styp-Rekowski.

Beginning with the archetypical memories associated with the traditional Libyan family album, the visual elements show images and scenes from private archives that go as far back as the early 1900s. These photos hint at the social fabric of many decades past that has now undergone much felt and visible change. Whilst the second segment features a number of installations that are meant to be temporary repositories and eye-witnesses to the country’s history in different interpretive ways.

The capital city of Tripoli becomes a recurring monumental backdrop, wherein the city’s past, its signposts and architecture are intermingled with the artists’ stories and their attempt to capture and retrace the city’s disappearing and ever-changing landscape. The Ghazala installation, for example, addresses the unusual fate of the historic figurine fountain that was built by the Italian sculptor Vanetti in the 1930s and was an iconic landmark in central Tripoli for decades, before it recently vanished.

The raw history of the entirety of Libya also comes into view with reflections on its many uncomfortable episodes, including the colonial chapter, the current migrant crisis, the shifting urban landscape, the suffering under dictatorship for 42 years and the turbulent post-revolutionary period.

Looking at the known and unknown memories of Libya through the work of its citizens, both at home and abroad, the country is revealed to be a powerful force in their lives, as it is always carried in their hearts, thoughts and collective psyche and never far from their mind.

By exhibiting these artworks and hosting the parallel programme that delves deep into the Libyan artistic, cultural and intellectual terrain, it is encouraging robust discussion and reflection amongst guests and the British public.

The ‘Retracing A Disappering Landscape’ Parallel Programme

The events scheduled are below and all talks will be held at the P21 Gallery.

In Conversation: Libyan Writer Najwa Benshatwan

Date: Saturday 10 March (14:30-16:00)

Ghazi Gheblawi hosts a conversation with author Najwa Benshatwan to discuss the themes running through her highly acclaimed novel ‘The Slave Pens’. Shortlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), the book sheds light on an ugly period of Libya’s history – when slave trade markets flourished during the Ottoman era, way before the Italian colonisation and prior to Libya’s declared independence in 1951.

In ‘The Slave Pens’ Benshatwan brings forth the narrative of the slaves in a sensitive romantic tale that touches upon the era and taboo subjects that have not been exposed before within Libyan culture. She bravely tackles the cruel trade of human beings, coming at a time when Libya has turned into a smuggler’s paradise again with African migrants being unfairly bartered.

Benshatwan is a Libyan academic, novelist and playwright, with a doctorate from La Sapienz University in Rome. The recipient of many literary prizes, she has authored three collections of short stories and three novels, including The Slave Pens. Most recently, her short story Return Ticket was featured in Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations published by Comma Press. She is currently at St Aidan’s College, University of Durham where she has taken up the Banipal Visiting Writer Fellowship for the duration of three months.

Gheblawi is a Libyan physician, writer, activist and blogger based in the UK. He runs and hosts the Imtidad cultural blog and podcast that focuses on literature and arts in Britain and the Arab world. He was one of the founders and cultural editor of the newspaper Libya Alyoum (2004-2009) and involved in many start-up online media and cultural projects. He is also a council member of the Society for Libyan Studies in Britain and a trustee of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. He is the senior editor at Darf Publishers, an independent publishing house based in London.

Khaled Mattawa: Poems Moving Pictures<>Pictures Moving Poems

Date: Saturday 31 March (14:30-16:00)

Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa presents a special talk in tandem with the overall context of the interdisciplinary show: to explore people’s direct experience of and fascination with personal memory as well as the collective narratives that arise in connection to modern day Libya.

Khaled Mattawa (born 1964 in Benghazi) is a renowned Libyan poet, highly acclaimed Arab-American writer and a leading literary translator. He is the author of four collections of poetry (Tocqueville, Amorisco, Zodiac of Echoes and Ismailia Eclipse) and two volumes of literary criticism (How Long Have You Been with Us: Essays on Poetry and Mahmoud Darwish: The Poet’s Art and His Nation).

Mattawa is also a co-editor of two Arab American literature anthologies and the translator of eleven volumes of modern Arabic poetry. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in major American literary reviews and anthologies.

Once commenting on how his poetry has been influenced by his emigration from Libya in 1979 to the United States, Mattawa said: “I think memory was very important to my work as a structure, that the tone of remembrance, or the position of remembering, is very important, was a way of speaking when I was in between deciding to stay and not stay, and I had decided to stay.”

The recipient of many literary awards, these include a Guggenheim fellowship, a USA Artists Award and a MacArthur fellowship. His work has also won the San Francisco Poetry Center Prize, the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize (twice), three Pushcart Prizes, final for the Pegasus Prize and a notable book recognition from the Academy of American Poets.

Mattawa is currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, the premier poetry society in the United States and associate professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also a contributing editor for Banipal, the leading independent magazine of contemporary Arab literature translated into English.

For more: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/khaled-mattawa

Jihan Kikhia: Searching for Kikhia

Date: Thursday 19 April (18:30-20:00)

Jihan Kikhia is the writer, director and producer of the documentary film ‘Searching for Kikhia’, which is still a work in progress. Here she shares the personal journey in creating the film that is based on the true story of her family’s struggle against political and personal pressures in the search for justice, in relation to the disappearance of her late father Mansur Rashid Kikhia.

During the nineteen-year search for the missing Mansur, Baha Omary, Jihan’s Syrian-American mother, encountered some of the most powerful and dangerous people in the world (including Qaddafi himself), whilst navigating the political agendas and conflict of interests of five countries: the United States, Syria, Libya, France, and Egypt. Forced to reckon with international secret services, tortuous mystery and a clash of cultures, she still had to nurture and protect her children.

Jihan Kikhia: “Death is expected. It is closure. It is natural. Disappearance is surreal. I want to share with the audience questions such as: What is it about disappearance that makes us so confused? So disturbed? So upset? So detached yet so hooked? At times, moving on feels like you’re cheating, or that you have also betrayed justice. You somehow feel guilty that you have been unable to obtain resolution or change the situation. There is a powerlessness that is deeply uncomfortable”.

Kikhia has a Bachelor’s degree in International and Comparative Politics from the American University of Paris and a Master’s from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where her focus was on art education, body ornamentation and healing arts.

In 2015, her body painting project and exhibition ‘Painted Stories, Spirited Bodies’ was recognized as excellent student work in NYU’s Confluence online magazine. In 2012, her article ‘Libya, My father, and I’ was published in Kalimat Magazine: Arab Thought and Culture. She is very committed to discovering and nurturing the ways in which humanitarian aid and the healing arts merge, and how the creative process can be a vehicle for freedom and empowerment.

For more: https://www.mansurkikhia.org/

Guy Martin: The Missing

Date: Tuesday 24 April (18:30-20:00)

Photojournalist Guy Martin recalls his experience of covering political and historical events in Libya. He began to document the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa circa January 2011and brought back images from Egypt, before focusing on the civil war in Libya from the east to the besieged western city of Misrata circa April 2011.

In this talk, he will discuss the photographs of the Libyan men that had adorned the walls of the courthouse in Benghazi during the spring and summer of 2011; because over the course of the Libyan revolution, the locals were found to be posting pictures of missing sons, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and friends in the hope that someone might recognise a face.

“The faces read like a ghoulish storybook of Libya’s recent history; a man who had not returned from a secret and brutal war with Chad in the 1970s; a man publicly executed in Benghazi in the 1980s; faces of men who disappeared after being arrested by Gaddafi’s secret police during his four decades of brutal rule.” Guy Martin

Martin’s work in Egypt and Libya formed the basis for joint exhibitions at the Spanish Cultural Centre in New York, HOST Gallery in London, the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff and the SIDE Gallery in Newcastle. He also had his first solo show ‘Shifting Sands’ at the Poly Gallery in Falmouth.

His professional photographs have appeared in the Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, Der Spiegel, D Magazine, FADER Magazine, Monocle Magazine, Huck Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, ARTWORLD, The New Statesman, The Wall Street Journal and Time. He is also member of the esteemed photographic agency Panos Pictures.

Originally from Cornwall, Martin studied Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport and graduated with distinction. One of his first projects -Trading over the Borderline – was a documentation of the border region between Turkey and Northern Iraq and its trade routes that won him the Guardian and Observer Hodge Award for young photographers.

In 2011 Martin became an associate lecturer in Press and Editorial Photography at the University of Falmouth, United Kingdom. He now divides his time between in Istanbul and London.

For more: http://guy-martin.co.uk/

Adam Styp-Rekowski: Walks In Tripoli

Date: Saturday 28 April (14:30-16:00)

Adam Styp-Rekowski is from a legal background and has for many years worked for the United Nations and NGO’s in the Middle East and North Africa region. Originally from Poland, he is currently in Tunisia as a country director of the NGO Democracy Reporting International that looks at constitutional reforms. Prior to that, between 2012 and 2015, he worked as a constitutional dialogue project manager at the United Nations Development Programme in Libya.

Outside of these roles, Styp-Rekowski is also an expert photographer, highly respected and admired. His images are of the cities he has visited and worked in, often capturing the locals he comes across and day-to-day street scenes. Artistic both in colour and often in black and white, his ‘Walks’ portfolio covers the places and trips that have seen him enter and pass different continents.

“Camera helps to capture walks in space but also in time. I walk in places and time and share photographs of my walks…” Adam Styp-Rekowski

Styp-Rekowski’s photography has been exhibited in Jordan, Iraq, Libya, United Kingdom, Poland and Tunisia. He will be presenting images from his ‘Walks In Tripoli’ album and discuss the stories behind them.

For more: https://www.facebook.com/WalksInTripoli/

Farrah Fray: Weaving the Fabric of Our Fate

Date: Saturday 5 May (14:30-16:00)

Young Libyan writer Farrah Fray will speak about poetry, memory and contested personal history, providing a unique expository take on the idea of documenting and mapping personal and collective journeys. Informed by her background in translation and linguistics, Fray invites the audience to view Libya as a multi-modal piece of literature which, similar to the weaving of a cloth, carries routes positioned in different angles to each other and patterns repeated over the course of time, using all pieces of thread to reach a shared destination.

A published poet (The Scent of My Skin: From Libya, London and Every World I Live In), Fray’s work navigates and explores culture, feminism, displacement and identity. She is influenced by both London and Libya as well as other travels and the people she meets. Through her poems and memoirs, she hopes to expand the understanding and representation of Middle Eastern women today.

Most recently, she is working on a collaborative series with different artists for Khabar Keslan, confronting Libya’s fragmented history and identity. Khabar Keslan is an online review featuring art and critique from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

For more: https://www.farrahfray.com

Barbara Spadaro: Una Casa Normale

Date: Thursday 10 May (18:30-20:00)

Italian academic-historian Barbara Spadaro will deliver a talk that moves between Ottoman mansions, terrace houses and modernist flats of Tripoli, Rome and London, retracing trajectories and acts of transmission of Libyan Jewish heritage. Featuring a series of interviews and objects from family archives, Spadaro will share a strand of her research on the geographies and languages of memory of Libya.

A lecturer in Italian history at the University of Liverpool, Spadaro’s research explores media and the languages of memory in the 21st century, with a focus on Libya, Tunisia and Italy. She has been a ‘Society of Libyan Studies-British School at Rome’ fellow and visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS University of London.

Her first monograph Una colonia Italiana: Incontri, memorie e rappresentazioni tra Italia e Libia is a study of the memories and social practices of Italian colonial families from Tripoli and Benghazi. Her most recent publication, co-edited with Katrina Yeaw, was included in the Special Issue of the Journal of North African Studies that looked into gender and transnational histories of Libya.

For more: http://translatingcultures.org.uk

Adam Benkato: Unexpected Voices (Tracing the Libyan Past in Sound)

Date: Saturday 12 May (14:30-16:00)

Libyan-American scholar and writer Adam Benkato will be exploring some very unexpected voices from the Libyan past, preserved in a recently discovered archive of vinyl LPs recorded in Libya in the 1940s. He will consider how these may contribute to Libyan memory and heritage and how they parallel the ways in which we as individuals recollect the past and the disappearing signposts.

“We view the past through images or text. Though these may be intimate and may stimulate memories, conversations, and emotions, they are also two-dimensional and are removed from the people who made them or are in them. But when we have the opportunity to hear voices, we have access to a different kind of past—one we hear directly rather than recreate for ourselves.” Adam Benkato

Benkato was raised in Houston, Texas and has lived in Benghazi and London and is now based in Berlin. His research engages with Libyan language, literature and history and addressing themes of heritage, diaspora, and post-coloniality. The curator of The Silphium Gatherer, it is a blog focused on scholarship of Libya in the arts, histories, ethnography, linguistics, literature, music, and urban studies.

For more: https://silphiumgatherer.com/

‘Retracing A Disappearing Landscape’ is generously supported and funded by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), DARF Publishers, British Council and private individuals.

​For more information on the P21 Gallery: http://p21.gallery/

For more information on Najlaa El-Ageli (Noon Arts Projects): https://www.noonartsprojects.com

Above Image: The Ghazala by Alla Budabbus

Note: This article was first published circa March 2018

Textural Threads: A Collective Show Redefining The Female Space And Emerging Art From MENA

Curated by Najlaa El-Ageli, the ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition forms an integral part of the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2016. The AWAN is an annual event in March that celebrates Arab female artists in London, by offering them the platform to increase the visibility of their artwork and exposing their talent to newer audiences. The AWAN is organised by Arts Canteen.

United by what can only be described as the fearless feminine spirit, Textual Threads brings five strong emerging artists who will inspire, challenge and make you marvel at the different creative ways each has chosen to approach the topics impacting on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region today, whilst offering internal transformations. With a womanly abandon in the use and choice of different textures and methods, what is pertinent to the Arab is revealed, with a great cross-section of origins coming from Syria, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and one artist who is half-Algerian and half-Bulgarian.

From Dima Nashawi’s elegant illustrations that tell the personal tale of being a Syrian living in London, to the use of bold brush strokes of Arabic script on newsworthy photography by the young Libyan Takwa Barnosa, to the captivating digital prints on soft silk material by the Algerian Hania Zaazoua, these artists are reclaiming the imaginative terrain. They all show how art can be the cathartic measure that keeps one sane amidst the crazy dramas playing outside on the streets of a blighted region; or, as in some case, by looking psychologically within for answers.

The five artists striving to advance a peace, hope and love agenda, as well as celebrating womanhood itself and defying simple categorisations of what it means to be an artist from MENA are: Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria), Dima Nashawi (Syria), Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia), Hania Zaazoua (Algeria) and Takwa Barnosa (Libya).

Takwa Barnosa (Libya)

The young 18-year-old Takwa Barnosa is a Libyan artists who is still studying for her bachelor’s in Fine Arts at the University of Tripoli, but whose artwork has already caused a positive stir. Talented and inventive, she fuses Arabic calligraphy with different forms of mixed media. Utilising powerful newsworthy photographs that range in subject but concerning Libya, she writes over them with word messages to challenge the content of the story told within.

Barnosa doesn’t shy away from the difficult existential passage in which the Libyans find themselves, directly addressing the current status of political chaos, anarchy and general disorder. For example, one of her images hints at the burning petrol and the human costs entangled with its production. She also brings to the attention the unfortunate displacement of the Tawerghas in Libya as well as the drowning of migrants who are washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Her choice of word and vivid colours is always substantial and engaging, be it splashed on the digital image or painted on her canvas in various sizes. From the themes of death, to war and peace, dream and fear that apply universally, to the more specific issues relevant to Libya, where she comments on recent events and leaving them open to one’s own judgement. Her ‘Lost’ piece brings to attention the troublingly recent destruction of the Italian artefacts in Tripoli, with the Gazelle statue that was demolished by the attempts to deny colonial history.

Barnosa has given a statement to Nahla Ink: “Most of my works discuss the situation in the community that I live in. I have seen many acts and events happening and that are still taking place, especially in the past two years in Libya. I have tried to show the parts that I have experienced and felt through my artworks.”

Meryem Meg (Algeria-Bulgaria)

Meryem Meg is the 25-year-old Algerian-Bulgarian artist with a multi-disciplinary background and a specialty in graphic design. Keen on the themes of fertility, birth and the cycles within nature, she draws upon North African and amazigh marks and symbols in her work. Creating optical illusions and movement through the lines, colours and geometric shapes, Meg’s aim is to impact on the mind and create a mystical experience for the viewer, as well as to empower women through her visual affirmations.

In some of her work, Meg also challenges the Orientalist lens looking at the North African female and providing an alternative that is much deeper and far more complex. Utilising the local motifs that are used within textiles, tattoos and ceramics, she demonstrates the systems of knowledge and the ways in which the indigenous communities have structured themselves and told their stories over the eons.

She has provided a statement: “The works are a reflection of my Afro-European heritage where I am also making the contrast with a more contemporary visual influence including urban cultures. Exploring geometry, I use a gestural approach allowing what is typically rigid in structure to flow organically. The desired effect is to captivate and stimulate a sense of self-contemplation akin to a spiritual experience, created to interact with one another synergistically.”

Meg offers four pieces for the ‘Textural Threads’ collective show, two of which belong to a black and white series made with water-based paint on paper and the other two which have been created with acrylic, aerosol and rose water on paper. Using the ancient symbols with diamond, triangular and circular shapes, she builds a rhythmic feel with other lines as she explores fertility and life celebration with the joyful colours to uplift the spirit.

Dima Nashawi (Syria)

The Syrian Dima Nashawi is an artist who strongly believes that art goes hand in hand with social activism and is a powerful means for peace building and engaging with human rights. Although her art illustrations are very delicate, feminine, beautiful and intricate, they actually carry a very powerful message regarding Syria and the longing for return to her hometown of Damascus. Using smooth and curved lines in her illustrations, she attempts to simplify real stories and bring them closer to the audience.

Nashawi’s life and work journeys have so far seen her travel from Syria to Jordan, Lebanon and now London, where she is studying Art and Cultural Management at King’s college. With a bachelor’s in Sociology, she has also studied Fine Arts and worked as an illustrator-animator for magazines and children’s websites as well as undertaking social work with the UNHCR to help refugees.

For this exhibition, she presents the incredible illustration fairy-tale titled ‘The Mystery of Names in Raindrops’ and other pieces. The former is an imaginary tale about a little girl Lana and her mother, as they enter a world in which a witch lives in a forest and oddly collects raindrops in a jar that are brought to her by deer in return for lashes she makes out of spider web.

Although initially the witch seems an evil character who weaves curtains from girls’ braids, Lana later discovers that she is kind as she also makes carpets and blankets from the silk of cocoon and camel’s hair. Significantly, it is in the names written on the raindrops that we find the real stories of Syrians who have been struggling against the regime or other radical elements, with some detained and others who have lost their lives due to the current war situation.

In six other illustrations, Nashawi brings her whimsical creatures: a man who asks a young girl about the meaning of the name Dima, an image of two lovers and the images titled ‘Waiting’, ‘Damascus In My Head’, ‘On My Way My Lonely Planet’ as well as the ‘Tribute to Reyhaneh Jabbari’.

Nashawi: “My work deals with the moments of complex emotions that I have felt through personal interactions with my daily surroundings. My art is a revolt against injustice and to support social and political activism and movements. I am expressing an opinion, advocating and telling different stories to break stereotypes and mainstream media’s narratives. The current power of art is in delivering messages about Syria that the world is not paying attention to.”

Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail (Saudi Arabia)

The British-Saudi Arabian Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al Lail belongs to a number of different worlds that have formed the woman she has become today. With a master’s in Photography and the use of digital processes, she looks into identity, the negotiation of personal space as well as in dealing with the interactions between the contrasting collective cultural memories and how these may pose problems for the individual.

Having been raised partly in Saudi Arabia and now living as a Muslim female in the UK, she ventures into the questioning of oneself and her potential as an artist. She weaves this ‘otherness’ into her practice and looks into the subject of self in an ever-changing global society. She is the Co-founder of Variant Space, an online art collective for Muslim female artists.

Al Lail here offers images that form her ‘Hidden Colours’ series as well as two images from the ‘Rooftop’ project. In the first series, she explained: ‘This charts my personal identity that is defined by my mix of cultural backgrounds, with a Saudi father and an Indian mother as well as growing up in Britain. It explores my attempts to accustom myself to three cultural identities, whilst imposed ideas of where I belong or how I should be cluttered my self-perception.

“The colours reveal the hidden emotional journey attached to the hybridity of the cultures I grew up with. The images were taken using a photo-booth in order to interrupt the space which is used to define identity and produces a conforming, standardised image, which I manipulated. The same image is then changed gradually in reference to the way my identity is constantly in flux. The colours act as a force or barrier to conceal and reveal the self.”

In terms of the ‘Rooftop’ project, Al Lail said: ‘Identity and space are intimately connected; space delineates the scope for identity. This is particularly the case in the context of Saudi Arabia – space necessitates the very ground for a coherent identity. I use the rooftop – open space – as a metaphor for progressive, liberated and open-ended possibility. By placing a young girl – symbolising innocence – in such a space, I am trying to describe how identity flourishes best when there are no barriers and no ceilings.”

Hania Zaazoua (Algeria)

Hania Zaazoua is the 39-year-old Algerian designer, visual artist and stylist. She is a graduate of Fine Arts and woks as the Design Director at Bergson & Jung in Algiers. She has also established her own interior design brand called ‘Brokk Art’ in 2012.

Zaazoua draws her inspiration from personal wanderings, be they real or virtual and creates work that flirts with a trivial dream world and explores an alternative version of the society that she lives in. Enjoying the use of paradoxes, she looks at the complex relationship between the cultures of the East And West.

Using digitally manipulated images that she presents on soft silk material – that is stretched onto circular embroidery frames – her work deconstructs and recomposes popular or historical cultural icons and manipulates the tales being told.

In the ‘Young Ladies of Icosium’, we see a vision of the timeless Algerian women, renowned for storytelling and wisdom. As leading characters, they all present both an interface and an interference between East and West. Set in an undetermined time and space, they allude to the themes of decolonisation and self-empowerment and also refer to Picasso’s ‘Young Ladies of Avignon’.

In ‘Wonder Lalla’, the artist creates an Algerian version of the warrior-princess super heroine. Whether contemporary or ancient, she is a multi-generational role model. The use of the title ‘Lalla’ is of Berber origin that signifies a mark of distinction for the woman. The other works presented in ‘Textural Threads’ are: ‘Discretion Zone’, ‘Mahmoud & Tassadite’ and ‘Daydreaming’.

Zaazoua has provided a statement as well for Nahla Ink: “In a world where reality is fantasy… that specific prism, different and sometimes close, I propose an alternative world that is dreamlike and almost falsely naïve. I use clichés picked up from the media, literature material and films that have references to the West; but, being from the East, I create the reactive heroines, some who are real and others fictional.”

The ‘Textural Threads’ exhibition will be on display from 2-19 March, 2016 at the Rich Mix venue in Shoreditch, London.

For more information on Arts Canteen and the AWAN Festival: https://artscanteen.com/

For more on Najlaa El-Ageli: https://www.noonartsprojects.com/

Note: This article was first published circa March 2016

Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI): The Pop-Up Mosque About To Go Virtual!

Welcome to the pop-up mosque. The one where prayer is often led by women. And where vegan food is served at special events.

Just like any other mosque this Ramadan, the Inclusive Mosque Initiative (IMI) will gather its congregation for Friday prayers, sermons, Islamic recitations and some organised Iftars. But unlike the others, two things will stand out. One is that their venue is not permanent but rather a ‘pop-up’ dependent on donations; and, second, if you do attend, be prepared for a little shock as they do things differently from the traditional sense and you might not understand what they are getting at.

The IMI is a small but slowly growing group of like-minded liberal Muslims whose aim is to create a new type of Islamic community, where the strict religious rules don’t apply; and, where the practice – rather than the theory – of anyone being able to attend their prayers, sermons, recitations and discussions feeling free of orthodox expectations can be realised.

For the IMI, it doesn’t matter from which religious or non-religious sect you belong, you are welcome in this mosque. You might even be invited to their readings of poetry, art exhibitions or picnics and BBQs that offer vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options! The only rule is that participants and attendees are respectful of each other, not abusive nor violent in active or passive ways.

As they have not been able yet to raise enough money for a fixed carbon-neutral building – as they would like it to be! – they have so far functioned ad hoc and managed to meet in venues across London, Oxford, Manchester and Bristol; in a range of places like community and arts centres, restaurants, outdoor spaces, the Muslim Institute and even holding an inter-faith concert in a church in Waterloo and prayers in a Buddhist Centre.

But great controversy also surrounds their choices and behaviour. For example, prayers and sermons are often led by women and there is no compulsion to even take part or cover the head with a hijab. Women and men stand mixed together in prayer lines and sometimes their Friday discussions might seem a little too philosophical. Some of the past topics included ‘Hijab and Mosques’, ‘Mental Health and Jinn Possession’ or ‘Jokes! Humour in the Hadiths.’

In their defence, the IMI explained: “Part of our understanding of inclusivity in Islam is the theme of non-compulsion in religion. During prayers, not everybody wants to participate or in the same way. We feel that this inter-community aspect is particularly important as differences among sects are too often used to justify violence around the world. Additionally, we have had a number of ex-Muslims and non-religious people attend who in some cases haven’t prayed in years. With our non-compulsion principle, they have returned to their faith and begun to re-engage with Islam.”

Set up two years ago by two women, the first goal was to create a space where women can feel more at ease than they do in central mosques; but, later on, they developed the idea and opened their doors to anyone from any diverse Islamic background or minority who might feel awkward or not well catered to in the usual sense.

Co-Founder Tamsila Tuaqir​ said:”In our two holiest of mosques in the Muslim world at the Kaaba in Mecca and the Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, there is no physical division between men and women and women do not stand behind men but side-by-side. We aim to emulate this highest example. There is established tradition of this from the time of the Prophet Mohammed and plenty of scholarship that discusses the permissibility of this, for example, Abdul An-Naim.”

The overall remit of the IMI also connects them with other groups, like Islamic social justice movements, as they tackle other modern issues, like the environment, arts, mental health and the liberation of Palestine.

IMI members come from many backgrounds, including: Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Quranist, Salafi, Braelvi, Islamic Feminist, Secular, Conservative and Reverts. Whilst their ethnic composition reflects British diversity with: Arab, Malaysian, Central European, South Asian, East African and Persian. The community is now international with contact groups in Malaysia, Kashmir and Switzerland.

With the world now so much closer and easily connected, the IMII’s next ambition is of the digital kind. Already, they hold Skype-Koranic discussion circles and reading groups led by a Sheik that have proved friendly, popular and accessible by engaging more people across time-zones.

The IMI said: “Dependent on the technology available and costs, we are developing the theory and investigating the practicalities of a virtual-interactive space where people can enter the mosque from any location from anywhere around the world and take part in prayers, sermons and discussions. We’re talking about more than just a video call but a 4-Dimensional physical experience that includes audio, visual and also eventually olfactory.”

The IMI is very serious about accessibility and they adapt any location for wheelchair users, as well as conducting the call to prayer in British Sign Language. They are presently developing their mission statement into a picture document for people whose first language is not English or those with learning difficulties to be able to understand their ethos.

The IMI is a voluntary organisation entirely dependent on donations and the work of its volunteers. They are currently recruiting for a volunteer fundraiser, accountant and graphic designer to work a few hours a week.

For more information: www.inclusivemosqueinitiative.org.

Note: This article was first published circa July 2014

Bayda Asbridge: Weaving Away The Tears

In Honour Of A Syrian Mother

Death is the ultimate separation, but not being able to attend your parent’s funeral makes it that far more difficult to grieve and deal with the loss. When an unfair bloody war is also taking place in the background and you are in far away exile, there is no option left for the psychological survival but to claim the personal story.

Bayda Asbridge is a 52 year-old Syrian-British artist who is currently resident in Worcester, Massachusetts (USA). When she left Syria in 1994, she vowed to never return. So when her mother died in Damascus at the end of 2012, she found herself alone and without the only four people in the world who could have helped share her pain and with whom to shed the tears.

Bayda has four sisters who are mostly estranged from war-torn Syria. Although they all grew up in Kuwait and used to travel back and forth to Syria, now two are based in the United Kingdom, one in Dubai, one in Syria and Bayda in the US.

Weaving Above Other Art Forms

A versatile artist, Asbridge could have turned to any one of the art mediums that she is highly skilled at for catharsis; she is an accomplished Asian painter, a sculptor and photographer. But instead, she turned to Saori weaving, a recent weaving technique from Japan, to help her with the emotionally charged project of grieving.

She said to Nahla Ink:  “I knew weaving would be the answer to help in our joint grief because it links us to our background and identity as Arab women from Syria. Our country has always been famous for its woven fabrics, looms, damask and other textiles and formed an important centre on the Silk Road route going as far back as the Middle Ages with its celebrated bazaars, crafts and artisans.

“Weaving also makes me feel privileged and honoured every time. It has tremendously helped me with sorting out many issues, especially in dealing with the past and the nostalgia for my homeland, people and language. But, most importantly, it has made the dead ends of my life form a full circle that tells me who I am and what my purpose is here on Earth.

“Ever since learning under the instructions of Mihoko Wakabayashi in Worcester from February 2012 onwards, something deep within me has triggered. On some days, I even feel like getting down on my knees to embrace the loom in love and tenderness.

“I think also about all the women who have ever spent hours in front of their looms making items for their loved ones but how sad that much of their efforts have been taken for granted.”

In Honour of Hayat Nasser

Asbridge’s mother, Hayat Nasser, was herself a seamstress. On every happy occasion, she would stitch nice dresses for the five girls to look good, pretty and presentable. She also sewed every other garment to save money while their father was moaning in the background about the noise of the sewing machine.

The piece in her honour of her mother is still in process, but already it is ten metres long and divided into five sections with different colours to represent each one of the five sisters. Nasser’s face has also been silk-printed in the centre of each section to show how she is still in the depths of their hearts.

The other four sisters are helping out by locating old family mementos and photos of childhood days and growing up. As Bayda has been away so long, she left behind most of her personal history and belongings in Syria and in Kuwait.

With Saori weaving, one starts with an idea, sets a warp and gets shuttles, bobbins and a variety of yarns ready for a special loom that has travelled all the way from Japan to help create a woven piece through a spiritual journey of weaving. The yarns can be wool, cotton, silk, natural fibres or acrylic

After that, you can add roving, felts, paper or even cellophane. Once the woven bit is finished, you have an extra option to decorate it with pebbles, shells, driftwood, beads, pods, dried plants and even tribal jewellery.

Haunting Demons From The Past

The experience of reflecting on the past has for Asbridge, brought back some bad memories and the demons she had originally escaped from twenty years ago, when she was 29 years old.

She said: “Although I felt loved by both my parents as a child, it all changed when I was a teenager and woke up to the fact that my father was an unhappy man. Effectively, all he wanted was a son to carry his name but instead ended up with five daughters. He was even called ‘Abou Yousef’ when he never had a son.

“My father finally alienated himself from us and I could no longer view him as a role model. Even when I got married young, his aspirations for me ceased and I felt let down because my first husband was abusive but he turned a blind eye because he found in him the missing son.”

Perhaps this is what made it easy for her to leave like a nomad to start a new life somewhere far away, even not knowing what would happen to her. But the situation was so bad that she was ready to take the risk.

Asbridge; “I ran away to survive because in the Middle East I felt suffocated just like my mother before me. Yes, she was strong but depressed due to the limits of her life and the restrictions of the society and the cultural expectations to have a son, when all she got was five girls.

“Even though scientifically it has been proven that the man’s sperm is what determines the sex of the child, my mother felt devalued and unappreciated by a tradition that only worships the male. She was a victim of an abusive marital relationship and a system that lets many other Arab Muslim women down.

“I am also angry with her because the five daughters were willing to take care of her if she decided to leave my father. We promised to work and support her but she was scared and stayed in an awful relationship that left her hollow and bitter and without much dignity, pride or hope.

“When the offer of a scholarship came to go to the United States, I didn’t hesitate and left immediately never wanting to go back; because I felt that I should have never been born there in the first place. Now, I am happy to belong to a Western world of openness, logical thinking, freedom of expression and relative gender equality that I don’t have to be punished for being a girl.”

“As for my father, I haven’t included him in the project even though I have a picture of him that my sisters sent me that I could incorporate. Yes, I do feel a bit guilty because he is alive and retired in Syria and I am working on improving my relationship with him especially in his old age. But I can’t dedicate this piece to any one else other than my mother and four sisters.”

Syrian Living In The West

For the past twenty years, Asbridge has built a new life. Happily married with a 15-year-old daughter, Maya, she is immersed in lots of local projects in her adopted hometown. Although her biggest passion and priority is art, she also teaches ESL part-time and works as a medical and legal interpreter as well as giving creative classes at Worcester Art Museum.

She said: ““Even being far away, I am always Syrian and I continue to live Syria every day of my life. It is just that I now have two identities, one Oriental and one Western and I like both. In my mind they don’t clash because I choose the best of both. I also tell my daughter that she must visit Syria with or without me.

“I don’t run or hide from my identity. My first language is Arabic and I use it for my translator-work into English and I still enjoy reading it and writing with it. I am also a woman; and, yes, I struggled with that for many years and felt it as a discomfort but now I have accepted it and am proud of it.

“The conflict in Syria leaves me speechless. Social injustice started the French Revolution and the perestroika in the ex-Soviet Union. Now, it is time for the Arab world to revolt in disgust at what the people in power are doing to the working man and woman and the growing gap between different social classes.”

Healing Fibres – The Future

With the early experience of marital abuse and painfully watching her mother going through so much worse for over thirty years, has given Asbridge the impetus to help others by raising awareness of the problem and using art as therapy.

She has started a local Worcester initiative called ‘Healing Fibres’, calling on students to create art work which addresses social, political, economic, environmental and gender issues in a free-style way. Participants can use weaving, knitting, sculpture or installation, as long as it includes fibres.

As part of it, she is currently and proudly displaying and exhibiting the piece in honour of her mother. She also hopes the project succeeds and lasts well into the future.

For more information about Bayda Asbridge’s Art: https://www.baydasart.com/

Note: Saori Weaving

Saori weaving originates in Japan and its philosophy is rooted in Buddhist Zen practices. It is based on the idea that weaving doesn’t have to be restrictive and mathematical but that it can be free, inclusive and accommodate different abilities. The Saori loom is user-friendly, light, portable and it also can be folded and put away when not in use.

Unlike traditional weaving where one is restricted to a specific design or pattern that looks perfect and machine-made, in Saori the emphasis is on the spirit of the weaver, her or his abilities, their personal interpretations and feelings that filter through the work.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2014

UK Anti-Slavery Day: SCEME On Sex Trafficking In The Middle East

Human trafficking today is considered one of six types that manifest modern-day slavery; and, especially of sex trafficking. The other ways are bonded labour, forced labour, child slavery, early forced marriage and descent-based slavery.

On the occasion of the UK Anti-Slavery Day 18 October, also coinciding with EU Anti-Trafficking Day, I spoke with Iman Abou-Atta, Founder of the London-based charity SCEME (Social Change through Education in the Middle East) and her colleague Sarah Barnes, to highlight what is happening today in the female sex trafficking situation in the Middle East.

The official definition of human trafficking according to the UN Palermo Protocol: “The recruitment, transportation and harbouring of a person by threat, force, coercion, abduction, deception, or abuse of their vulnerability with the aim to exploit them.”

SCEME: Karamatuna Programme & Consequences of the Arab Spring

Iman Abou-Atta: “We were one of the first NGOs to ever speak in the UK about the trafficking of Arab girls in the Middle East; and, in particular, the plight of Iraqi young girls who were either being trafficked within Iraq itself or were refugees in the camps across the borders.

“The topic had brief coverage in the British newspapers before we published the Karamatuna Report in 2011, but it somehow didn’t capture as much attention as it deserved. At the time, our research team discovered that Iraqi girls as young as 10 or 12 were being taken into Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for sexual exploitation.

“Whereas today as a consequence of the Arab Spring our focus is on the women and underage girls this time being trafficked out of Syria. It is our most urgent task to complete a second phase of the Karamatuna Programme so we can gather all the facts, proof and evidence before we can act and make recommendations.”

In March this year, the UNHCR estimated that the number of Syrians either registered as refugees or waiting to be registered as refugees has now exceeded 1 million.

SCEME: “We are very concerned about Syria especially because so many of the refugees from Iraq went into Syria. So we have a huge group of vulnerable people there who were victims of trafficking or domestic slavery before the conflict in Syria broke out. So now you don’t only have the Syrians themselves who are potentially vulnerable but you have the existing refugees as well.

“Currently, we are hearing lots of stories about what is going on in the camps where the war displaced end up and in particular those based in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. In the Summer 2012, we heard of adverts being posted by men looking for Syrian brides.

“We know that some of these Syrian girls in the camps in Jordan are ending up in Saudi Arabia through the use of the unofficial and temporary Muta’a marriages that are legalised in parts of the Middle East.”

Muta’a marriage is also known as the ‘pleasure marriage’. It is a fixed and usually short-term contract where a specific duration and a monetary compensation are agreed upon in advance. It is a private and verbal exchange marriage between a man and a woman.

SCEME: “This set-up of a sham marriage can last for a couple of weeks, days or even just hours and what is worse is that after they’ve taken away and used, they are then discarded and sent back to their families in the camps and potentially pregnant.

“So you end up having an initial problem of a girl who is sold to an older man for a small amount of money possibly between US $130-250 that the family obviously needs; but then she is pregnant and the family has to deal with the maintenance of her and the child. This girl now cannot even get remarried which is another big problem in the community.

“We have even some anecdotal evidence coming from Lebanon where muta’a marriage is used as just another word for prostitution, so it is literally a two to three hour arrangement.

“The girls involved will have left the refugee camps and become vulnerable in the cities for so many different reasons; but effectively, they end up in forced prostitution. This is something we need to look into further, as at the moment it is anecdotal.”

The SCEME Report on Human Trafficking Laws and Regulations

SCEME will soon be launching their ‘Report on Human Trafficking Laws & Regulations’, which has already been prepared by their legal team and finalised in June 2013.

This looks at how different countries deal with the issue of human trafficking and related laws in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. It also considers European Union standards on trafficking, labour and domestic violence and makes a best to worst comparison analysis.

SCEME: “The aim of this Report will be to help us and other interested organisations to better understand the laws especially on trafficking and domestic slavery on an international level. In particular, we want to know how we can more effectively implement projects and to be able to campaign and lobby so that the laws can better protect women.

“It does a best practice comparison at the end and is a subtle way to lobby Middle Eastern countries so they can get a better ranking and to improve their status in other ways. This is an independent report done by our legal volunteers.

“Yes, it is hard to push the governments, but at least they can become more aware and aim to improve. Ironically, the Report had initially showed Syria as one of the higher ranking places before it fell. Now it has become one of the worst in under a year.”

Note: SCEME is a not-for-profit organisation based in London, established in 2010. SCEME has developed programmes to promote the rights and liberties of women and their children; particularly, those who are refugees or migrants in the MENA region. It also aims to support the same to become active citizens of the world through the provision of educational workshops, training and mentorship.

For more information and how you can get involved: https://www.sce-me.org/

For more information on UK Anti-Slavery Day: https://www.antislaveryday.com/

Note: This article was first publisher circa October 2013

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